Originally published in the December 29, 2014 issue of Nash Country Weekly magazine.
Will Hoge is sitting on his tour bus before a hometown show in Nashville, bracing himself for a knock at the door.
“It’s taken my mom 15 years to not show up at the bus with every person I went to elementary school with,” the musician says with a laugh. “We would be in the van and she would be like, ‘You will not believe who I’ve got here!’ And it would be my second-grade teacher or some kid I went to fourth grade with. ‘They just wanted to say hi!’”
On this night, the only pre-show visitor who materializes is his wife, Julia, who climbs aboard for a quick hello. But being surrounded by people and places from the past is what inspired much of Will’s forthcoming ninth studio album, due in the spring. Earlier in 2014, he came down with pneumonia while he was scheduled to be on tour and had to cancel a string of shows. But he couldn’t retreat to his own home in Nashville because he and Julia were at a crucial point in selling it—so he spent a week recovering at Mom and Dad’s in nearby Franklin, in the very house he grew up in.
“By midway through,” Will recalls, “I was able to get up and walk around the block and see the old neighborhood and talk to people’s parents that still live there and get caught up on all these things. It was a real flashback. And I think a lot of these songs from this record were born out of that growing-up experience. That seems to be a theme underlying the whole record, which I hope is something that folks latch onto.”
Fans and critics alike have latched on to the album’s nostalgic lead single, “Middle of America,” which was released in August. Co-written by Will, Jessi Alexander, and Tommy Lee James, it’s a no-frills snapshot of growing up in the Heartland. The accompanying video—a continuous shot of Will cruising by foot and by Chevy through a typical night in downtown Gallatin, near Nashville—gives faces to the names in the song: the fella getting yet another tattoo, the small-town band with big-time dreams, the recently returned war vet.
“These characters exist everywhere,” Will says. “The accent’s different, but it’s the same exact thing.”
With seasoned co-writers like Alexander and James in his corner as well as a 2013 Grammy nomination for penning Eli Young Band’s “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” Will had no problem coming up with the meat of the new album. But when it came to producing the tracks, he could either do it himself (like he did with his most recent releases, Never Give In and Number Seven) or bring in a collaborator’s fresh perspective.
“I started thinking about what I wanted to do sonically and kind of maintaining this ‘Will Hoge sound’ that I feel like I’ve started to cultivate,” he explains. “But [I also wanted] to shape it a little more with some pop sensibilities—hooks and choruses and countermelodies that I don’t necessarily do naturally myself.”
He recalled past conversations with his longtime friend Marshall Altman, a former A&R executive and established producer for artists like Amy Grant and Matt Nathanson. They’d sworn to work together someday when the timing was right.
“As I was having this internal monologue,” Will says, “I was driving the bus and ‘Friday Night’ by Eric Paslay came on the radio, which Marshall produced, and it was followed by ‘Helluva Life’ by Frankie Ballard—I think that it had just gone number one—which Marshall produced. It was late, it was 1:30, 2:30 in the morning, and it just seemed like one of those things: I needed to call him.”
The late-night chat quickly turned into studio time, which was uncharted territory for the friends. Will likens the situation to a blind date: “Even though you may have heard a lot of this person’s work, you don’t know what they’re really going to be like until you get in a room with them,” he says.
Ultimately, the partnership worked. The resulting album—which at press time was being mixed—continues Will’s tradition of straddling country, rock, and old soul. He’s struggled with being pinned down to one genre since the beginning of his career, he says, but the country world has always been accepting of his music.
“It’s the first genre that’s really opened its arms and just said, ‘Come over here and do what you do,’” he adds. “And it’s not lost on me. It’s something I’m really honored by.”